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A Prescription for Innovation: Health Care Through the Lens of Clayton Christensen

Apr 15, 2013

Author: Jen Brass Jenkins, MPC

It wasn’t Clayton Christensen’s (author of The Innovator’s Dilemma), first visit to University of Utah Health Sciences, nor will it be the last, but it was certainly a memorable one. Christensen has been asked, and accepted, membership on the advisory board for the newly established Institute for Health Care Transformation. While not a professional in the health care field per se, Christensen is known for his theory on disruptive innovation in business and wrote a thoughtful analysis of the health care system in his 2009 The Innovator’s Prescription, A Disruptive Solution for Health Care.

Endorsed by enough MDs, PhDs, CEOs, think-tank directors and legislators to generate serious attention to his posited solution, Christensen was recently profiled in the print and digital publication Wired by Jeff Howe who asked an extremely perceptive question of Christensen: did he study business or the world through the lens of business?* Christensen responded that his view is very much about the world through the lens of business, an insight that has undoubtedly been a catalyst to his success. And since he has now applied that lens to health care, the industry has taken note.

The Perplexing Condition

There is not one person world wide that remains unaffected by health care and the health care industry. According to Christensen, our current system works reactively, attempting “to diagnose and treat any disorder that anyone might bring through their doors.” § This seemingly obvious solution for the job that is health care—trying to do everything for everyone—has made our system the way it is. But the system doesn’t work, and the basic hospital business model is not sustainable. How then does Christensen’s lens of business suggest we solve this problem?

The Disruptive Prescription

His proposed prescription centers around his study of hugely successful industries that have been undercut by low cost and seemingly non-threatening competitors. These non-threatening competitors, however, have not used the proven models for success. They have instead addressed “the simplest problems of the least demanding customers,” problems or concerns that weren’t those of industry leaders or customers, but whose solutions with time supplanted those industry leaders. These disruptive innovations are made possible, Christensen writes, by three factors:

  1. A transformational technology
  2. A business model that delivers the simplified solutions at low cost
  3. A supporting group of suppliers and distributors with similar, consistent business models (Christensen, p 419–421)

And that’s it. His solution posits starting or streamlining clinics, hospitals, and other health care systems from the bottom up with a new business model centered around the advancing technologies available in medicine; using high-quality, low-cost business models; and establishing a supporting group of suppliers. Of course, as we all well know either by our own experience or the experience of others, words aren’t actions and are far easier said than done. However, in a movement to address the gargantuan problem of the health care system, University of Utah Health Care has established an institute for the study and application of innovative and collaborative ideas: The Institute for Health Care Transformation.

The Innovative Application for Health Care Transformation

As both an academic medical center and an employer, University of Utah Health Sciences provides an ideal real-time, experimental laboratory for testing such disruptive theories as those suggested by Christensen. With its inaugural meeting this last weekend, the Institute for Health Care Transformation is now ready to build on the data and innovation already begun in the U of U’s primary care clinics (see Algorithm No. 1: Focus on Primary Care) in an attempt to innovate through disruption. As Christensen says, it’s not the people in the system that are the problem, it’s the system itself, and if the current gains made by these small, disruptive innovations continue to build, the system just might respond to the prescription.


* Howe, Jeff. (2013). “The Disruptor,” Wired. Conde Nast. March, 74–78.

§ Christensen, Clayton. (2009). The Innovator’s Prescription, A Disruptive Solution for Health Care. McGraw-Hill. p 420.